What does it mean to say a composition is “suitable for handbells”? Why shouldn’t handbell ringers ring “ordinary” compositions? The short answer to the second question is that there’s no reason at all. The longer answer is that handbell ringing is intellectually a lot harder than tower–bell ringing. In the early stages at least, most ringers find their energies almost entirely absorbed by the struggle to ring two bells correctly, with little left over for calling complicated compositions and following coursing orders. Hence one characteristic of a “handbell” composition is that it often has a very simple construction, such as having few calls, or being in many parts.
On handbells the ringer must know not only the blue line of the method, but also the relationship between the lines rung by each of their bells. For example, in Major there are three possible relationships between one pair of bells in the plain course; that rung by 7–8 (the “coursing” position), and those rung by 3–4 and 5–6. Of these, the coursing position is usually the simplest because the bells work together at the leadends, and in standard methods they usually dodge together at the back. Hence another desirable aim is to maximise the amount of coursing, or to minimise the number of different positions rung by one or more pairs of bells.
Although handbell compositions often lack some of the music valued by tower–bell ringers, this doesn’t automatically make them unmusical or unworthy of the attention of tower–bell ringers. A composition where many of the pairs (especially the four tenors) course can often be very musical, particularly on higher numbers. Combination rollups are of less musical interest on handbells, but the pleasures of little–bell music (now fashionable on tower–bells) have always been valued by handbell ringers, with the rollups gaining extra sparkle and emphasis when each ringer’s pair strikes together.
This collection contains a wide variety of compositions, not only those specially arranged for handbells, but also tower–bell compositions which have been judged suitable for handbells. It’s not assumed that handbell ringers will restrict themselves to simple methods — when ringing complex methods on higher numbers, an appropriate composition can still make the difference between success and failure. Where relevant, the construction and properties of individual compositions are explained in some detail to aid selection. It’s hoped that there’s something here for handbell ringers of all standards, and that tower–bell ringers will be tempted to try out some of them too.